Illegal trail use threatens elk calving on Burnt Mountain
May 30, 2012
SNOWMASS VILLAGE – More hikers and bikers than usual are invading terrain this spring that is seasonally closed so cow elk can give birth in peace, a state wildlife officer said Tuesday.
Kevin Wright, district wildlife manager with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said the unpermitted activity on trails on the east edge of Snowmass Village and the Snowmass ski area threatens to reduce reproductive success rates.
“We’re just getting a lot of people trying to get in to hike and bike in places where they shouldn’t be,” Wright said. “People are not respecting the closures at all.”
The trails with seasonal closures through June 20 are Tom Blake, Sequel, Anaerobic Nightmare, Buttermilk Ridge Trail and Government.
“There’s other places where people can hike and bike without going in elk-production areas,” Wright said.
The Forest Service closes federal lands between the Elk Camp section of Snowmass Ski Area and West Buttermilk, generally above Government Trail. Snowmass Village also has closures in effect on specific trails. The closures were enacted years ago with input from the Colorado Division of Wildlife, which is now part of the state Parks and Wildlife agency.
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The Forest Service can enforce the closure with a ticket that carries a minimum fine of $100.
The warm weather and dry trail conditions this spring are probably luring people to the off-limits trails even though they have been closed seasonally for years. It appears that hikers and bikers have deliberately gone around gates erected to restrict access on the Tom Blake Trail, Wright said.
Government Trail is marked with signs alerting hikers and bikers about the seasonal closure. The Forest Service installed a camera overlooking an entrance some years ago. Snowmass Village wildlife officers will check images once per week to look for violators, according to Jim Stark, of the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District. Stark said he hasn’t seen signs of violations on the Government Trail this spring.
Wright said he has seen signs of violations throughout the trail network and that it concerns him because calving season started in mid-May.
“Right now is usually the peak of calving,” he said.
Some cow elk will follow the snow line up in elevation as the snowpack melts in the spring, and they will deliver as high as they can, according to Wright. Others will return year after year to essentially the same spot to give birth, he said. So despite the warm weather and lack of snowpack, some elk are hanging low to have their babies. The warm weather doesn’t substantially alter the calving season, he said, so the trail closures will be needed through June 20.
“It’s a very critical time for elk,” Wright said.
The elk population is higher than the objective for the game-management unit that includes the upper Roaring Fork Valley, Wright said, but the ratio of calves to cows is low, suggesting possible population problems down the road.
Elk and other wildlife in the Roaring Fork Valley face challenges because of loss of habitat to development, poor condition of winter range and recreation pressure.
Wright said he believes recreation pressure in the Roaring Fork Valley has “skyrocketed” in the past five years, based on vehicles at trailheads and people in the backcountry. He said he hears plenty of people say they see elk all the time so they don’t understand that human disturbance causes problems.
“It has its impact,” Wright said, citing unnecessary burning of calories elk need to survive tough winters and reduced birth rates.